The concept of poetic truth—first developed by Shelby Steele—refers to the fallacy that erases the distinction between fact and narrative. Derived from the concept of poetic license, in which a poet takes liberty with conventional rules of syntax and grammar in order to achieve a more powerful effect, a poetic truth is a rhetorical device that takes liberty with literal truth in order to achieve an effect. Poetic truth offsets the actual facts by imposing a larger essential truth that reinforces our subjective feeling.
For example, it is a poetic truth that the sun rises and sets. The sun does not literally rise and set, but it feels true from our perspective. The literal truth—that the sun only appears to rise and set in relation to the revolutions of the earth—is less emotionally compelling. Poetic truths can be more or less harmful. As Thomas Chatterton Williams discusses in his memoir Self-Portrait In Black And White (reviewed here in a correspondence on our partner site, Letter), no human being is literally black or white, but these essential racial categories confirm a particular perception of reality. A poetic truth, then, is something that might as well be true for the sake of narrative coherence, whether or not it is ultimately true to the facts.
When employed in the service of political ideology, poetic truths can justify moral intimidation and the stigmatization of anyone who questions them. Because our poetic truth is taken to be absolute, anyone who challenges it is seen as an enemy of The Good.
Each ideological position has its own poetic truths.
The Cultural Left
Cultural progressivism is a vision of society that sees inequality as a function of group identity, privilege and systemic bias. According to this narrative, the privileges of the dominant group—typically construed as whites and men—are expressed in implicit prejudice against less privileged groups over whom the dominant group wishes to maintain its advantage. This unconscious bias against minorities and historically oppressed groups percolates through culture into our institutions to form an edifice of structural oppression, which prevents members of the disadvantaged groups from fulfilling their true potential. Thus, cultivating an awareness of how these forces operate—through privilege, bias and institutional oppression—will make society more fair and equal. When all identity groups are close to being on par in terms of outcomes, we will have justice.
The poetic truth of the cultural left is that bias produces all inequality. In fact, it doesn’t. Otherwise Asian Americans, a group that has faced no shortage of discrimination, wouldn’t enjoy the highest median household income by a wide margin, nor would women be doing better than men on a number of important socioeconomic metrics, such as college graduation rates and average life expectancies. Inequality between groups has both structural and behavioral explanations, not all of which admit of obvious solutions. But to accept these realities is less satisfying to the narrative’s purveyors.
The Economic Right
Libertarianism or laissez-faire capitalism is predicated on the notion that spontaneous market forces, instigated through the free exchange of goods and services and facilitated by the non-aggression principle, provide the optimal path to human flourishing. Here, it is government intervention, in the form of regulation and taxation, that interferes with our development as individuals and societies, stifling our creative energies and suppressing civic engagement—as evidenced by the fact that all of history’s greatest crimes and none of its greatest innovations can be ascribed to the state. By this logic, the mitigation of state power is a prerequisite to greater freedom, and the services typically provided by the state, such as healthcare and law enforcement, are better supplied by private institutions and the communal efforts of wealthy individuals than by faceless bureaucrats or government agencies.
The poetic truth of this ideology is that the private sector will always be more effective than the public sector. If this were true, we would expect countries with less government intervention to yield better social results, and nations with heavy taxation, robust welfare states and state-funded health care, such as Denmark, Switzerland and Finland, would be less agreeable places to live in than more libertarian countries, such as the US. In fact, Denmark, Switzerland and Finland are the three highest scoring nations in reported levels of happiness, and do exceptionally well on other measures of well-being, such as peace, life expectancy and health. Of course, there are also places with more state-driven models and less desirable results—but that is precisely the point. No single system is universally superior. Economic power corrupts in the same way as state power does.
With these facts in mind, the narrative comes apart: the public and private sectors are better at providing different things in different places and other historical and cultural factors need to be taken into account.
The Economic Left
Democratic socialism is a political philosophy in which economic and social structures are democratically operated and the effects of corporate privatization are mitigated. According to this vision, the tenets of free market capitalism, sometimes referred to as neoliberalism, work against human dignity by treating people primarily as economic inputs and outputs. A truly democratic society would allow workers to determine the rules of their own economy through public ownership and worker co-ops. By reducing the excesses of capitalism through universal social programs and regulatory measures imposed on big business, we can all become healthier and happier. Only self-interest or false consciousness prevents us from taking such measures.
The poetic truths of this view include the idea that capitalism itself is preventing flourishing and progress, and that greed and self-interest among the elites are preventing leftist policies from coming to fruition. But, if capitalism and progress were in conflict, the expansion of market economies into the developing world wouldn’t have resulted in the stark decline of extreme poverty across the globe. And, although inequality has increased in many western countries, it has decreased between countries. The world is richer and we are better off as a consequence of the ingenuities of the free market.
Moreover, if it were true that economic elitism and neoliberal ideology were all that stand between us and increased wealth redistribution, how can we explain the greater electoral successes of right-wing populism by comparison with left-wing versions? The hackneyed claim that conservatives are voting against their own self-interest by supporting politicians who empower the wealthy, only makes sense if we view self-interest exclusively in terms of economics. But these voters weren’t being irrational, because many people are willing to suffer economic pain if their self-worth and esteem is confirmed in the process. The same principle also applies to extremely wealthy people—such as former presidential candidate Tom Steyer—who support policies that go against their economic interests because they fulfill other needs. Our politics are influenced by self-interest, but not in exclusively economic terms.
The Cultural Right
Cultural conservatism, the photonegative of its progressive counterpart, postulates that the social upheavals of the 1960s destroyed our collective sense of coherence, identity and order by propagating feminist ideals, increasing ethnic diversity and associating white identity with historical oppression. Things were better before, the logic goes. The ensuing degeneration of American society and culture—characterized by the breakdown of family and community, rising rates of depression and suicide, the decline in religion and other civic associations, the surge of a shallow hookup culture, inter alia—is the result of our dissociation from tradition. Thus, the solution is to renew our sense of national pride and historical continuity by rejecting the politics of guilt circulated by the left in order to revive our cultural ethos and reclaim our birthright atop the global hierarchy.
The poetic truths of this vision include the idea that all change over the latter half of the twentieth century has been negative and that this can be exclusively blamed on the left. But, in fact, much of the change that has occurred over the past sixty years has been vastly beneficial: human freedom has been expanded across lines of color and gender, rates of violence have sharply decreased and we have more access to information, goods, services and communities than our ancestors could have dreamed of. These advances may seem superficial, but there is no reason why they should be incompatible with seeking deeper meaning. The search for meaning can be undertaken without the moral double standards of the past.
Cultural conservatives are guilty of the same error as cultural leftists: they both take the privileges of modern life for granted. Conservatives glorify the past and leftists equate the ugliness of the past with the present. Conservatives are, in addition, blind to the fact that broader processes—which are less gratifying to blame—such as globalization, automation, corporatism and entropy better explain our cultural decline than leftism.
The Intellectual Dark Web
The Intellectual Dark Web arose in the late 2010s as a middle ground in the intensifying culture war, in response to ideological extremism on both sides of the aisle. But the IDW is part of a longer lineage of cultural centrism that began in the 1960s with neoconservative figures who rejected leftist campus activism, without embracing conservative traditionalism outright. In this view, polarization is being driven more by miscommunication than by genuine value differences, and, if the excesses of cultural progressivism were excised from mainstream institutions, that would arrest the backlash of reactionary sentiment. Were the free exchange of ideas promoted through long form public discussion and debate, sober-minded moderation would emerge.
The poetic truth of this narrative is that our societal conflicts are positive-sum. But, although the far left and far right mirror each other in certain ways, and the existence of the one justifies the existence of the other among their respective adherents, it isn’t obvious that these two schools of thought directly contribute to each other or that reining in the excesses of one would have the same effect on the other. Each side has its own lineage and is responding to real world issues that aren’t easily resolvable through rational discourse: such as the trade-offs of demographic change in the west and the conflict between nationalist and globalist ideals. Culture war polarization is fueled by larger societal trends and genuine differences that don’t admit of much middle ground. In addition, the claim that one is against polarization per se can sometimes be simply a way of disguising one’s own biases—such as in the unfortunate case of talk show host Dave Rubin, who bemoans how divided we are and yet somehow always ends up exclusively blaming the left for this state of affairs.
Since the early 90s, three things have increased in the west at the same time and to similar extents: immigration, white identity politics and polarization—all of which were major factors in the rise of Donald Trump. These issues aren’t going to go away and we need to address our disagreements over them more directly.
Every vision of society has its own poetic truth that is at odds with the facts. The desire to make sense of the world’s complex realities is part of what makes us human. Although no single ideology can encapsulate the whole truth, allowing information to move freely between different groups can give us all a clearer picture of what is. Grasping the logic of each ideological perspective can foster mutual respect and recognition, whether or not we are ultimately persuaded by an opposing view. These attempts to clarify the world reveal our collective aspiration to improve the condition of human life. And that’s a beautiful thing.
But maybe that’s just my poetic truth.